“Frenchette is impossible,” I texted a friend months later Land McNally alumni Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr mastodon opened in Tribeca. “Nothing is impossible,” he replied by text. I was right and we ended up elsewhere on this occasion, living to visit the talented duo’s refined and popular brasserie and wield its confusing knives (their design seems somewhat counterintuitive upside down for menacing effect at your fingertips) other times.”
Le Rock, the duo’s new effort, also mostly French, debuted in July with Walker Stern (Battersby, Dover) as Executive Chef. The jury is still out on the inner-city island village’s greatest value as a truly local place, but The Rock has a more reasonable claim as a marquee than any other legacy or newcomer. (Although it would be nice if Rainbow Room became a regular restaurant again!) What the expense account does well, it does very well, and what it does poorly is poor enough to be more or less overlooked.
the old Rühlmann Brewery the space, which I remember being a little too dark and a little big despite being spread out, is now lovely – beautifully lit and airy under high ceilings and Art Deco design elements. Like Le Rock, the address emerged, like marble, like what it clearly always wanted to be.
A revolving door spins into a glamorous but oddly small bar that still takes up a lot of space. It is anchored by light panels set with bottle shelves that wish to reflect the vintage dress. It’s pretty, but the configuration looks more like a waiting area, a place of passage rather than a drinkable destination on its own. There is room for 30 people, apparently split evenly between the square bar and some high peaks. The pricey trio of martinis ($26 with sidecar), including the dry Super Sec with overproof gin and vermouth, and the classic Manhattans ($18) are good; it just doesn’t seem like the place, despite its aesthetic appeal, to dwell on it separately from dinner preparations.
Most of the 130 seats in the largest dining room on the left are tightly stacked, a reminder that before 2020, pre-partition, pack them in accord, Manhattan has done some time ago that now, as then, will be jovial or crowded, depending on your mood. There are also some more isolated tables on the periphery which, in the same way, follow as blessed spaced or annexed, also according to temperament. Mine lands on the first, and Le Rock’s best bet for this breath is out the back to the left.
Before starters, the dinner menu is organized into shellfish, appetizers and finger food sections, the latter more often preceded by “bouche” and signaling a small allegedly free bite (everything costs at the end of the day!) which, here, looks more like a baby. -apps ranging from $6 to $15 with a caviar outlier of $45. This category’s Chicken Liver Mousse ($6) is a great introduction to cooking, smooth and rich under jelly and a great spread for the homemade baguette (included). His skewer of grilled calamari and shishito is a dive best avoided. Five pieces of grilled calamari feature chunks of the famous wayward chili on each $8 skewer. It’s not bad because it doesn’t taste like anything but the occasional char lick or, if you get one active, bare heat, but most bits are, as one could be expected, untouched by capsaicin. Escargot ($25) is a more vibrant choice, dressed as expected in garlic green and served in five small cups under a crown of croutons for each, making it easy and elegant to pop them out of their artificial shells. They are also an ideal vehicle for the rest of the bread.
Now, this would all amount to a pretty good restaurant so far, despite the truncated bar. But the Rock’s best dishes are sufficiently above what most of his contemporaries cook to catapult him into the realm of very good.
The corn and chanterelle mushroom agnoletti ($24) sends chewy pasta into a higher stratosphere of form: a happy marriage of robust and delicate. If this is what pasta can be in New York, it will be vexing to settle for less. The Rock’s Pepper Bison with terrific fries ($60) is also infused with buttery flavor and a velvety texture. Both dishes approach that oft-exaggerated, “melt-in-your-mouth” cliche far more accurately than anything he’s ever tried to describe.
The Rock’s sensational bison is tied with its own menu companion for the best meat I’ve eaten this year. The other is an amazing duck ($48), flavored and prepared to that perfect deep pink they’d aim for in “waterfowl: that’s what’s for dinner” commercials, if there was one. This too is a masterclass of tenderness, deep and vibrant with its own juices and expert seasoning to amplify its natural savory sweetness.
I’m a fairly confirmed restaurant dessert denier. Apart from great restaurants or specialty shops, they generally disappoint. But the pastry chefs Michelle Palazzo and The excellence of Mariah Neston, including real showpieces that actually deliver their looks. The profiterole ($16) is jaw-dropping, as is the assortment of sweets (best to be sixty-four bucks), but all night everyone’s eyes are on the baba cake ($20) with a choice of alcohol (including classic rum). The Rock makes it a big sliced-to-order bundt, doused in booze and topped with a generous crown of fantastic whipped cream that together bring us closer and closer to broad acceptance of the word.”wet.” Its presentation is matched only by its wonderfully finished product; refined and invigorating with the exact amount of sweetness and punch for a mature palate.
Nobody really knows what will happen with Rockefeller Center. A Dimes Square fate seems unlikely. But the Rock’s entrees are better than those at beloved Frenchette and most of its direct competitors. That and a surprisingly decent availability at press time could make the new jewel in the micro-neighborhood crown the best-kept secret (though still very busy!) across the resort.
The atmosphere: Charming, lofty and spacious, but crowded and cacophonous, with a small bar out front.
The food: French-adjacent with lovely snails and poultry liver mousse and excellent pasta, bison and duck.
The drinks: House and classic cocktails with a wide variety of natural wines.
Timing Tip: The Rock has a few less crowded tables for two and small groups towards the back.
The Rock is located at 45 Rockefeller Plaza. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.